Listening to St. Maarten’s past: Marimbolas and the Mango Tree

POSTED: 09/2/13 11:57 AM
The marimbola
From left, Jan Beaujon, Carlson Velasquez, and John “FeFe” Hyman playing under the mango tree at Velasquez’s home in French Quarter.  Note Velasquez’s metallic tres guitar, characteristic of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Photo James Roidis

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista  – Before St. Maarten had electricity and was still unknown to most of the world – an obscure dot on the surface of a global map – people here got their musical entertainment from local performers. Sitting under a mango tree, it was a special Saturday afternoon at Carlson Velazquez’s French Quarter home, memories and music melded, and a peak into a vanishing St. Maarten appeared.

Men like Velasquez and John “FeFe” Hyman are among the last of a dying breed of musicians who can play the folk music of old St. Maarten.  Jan Beaujon, the former managing director of the Windward Islands Bank, is a musician in his own right, who learned from Velasquez, and who tutored him when he was a boy.  “Jan has been playing since he was a child,” Hyman added.

The influence of the Dominican Republic and Cuba is undeniable on the island’s early music, with instruments like the Cuban Tres guitar and the Marimbola, a wooden box with metal pieces that produces the characteristic bassy thump heard in traditional meringue.

Years ago many local people left St. Maarten to cut cane in the larger islands because there was very little work here. “Old people would go to cut cane. St. Maarten had nothing,” Velasquez said. They and their children came back with the impressions of the music they heard there. “When I grew up, we already had the influence from the Dominican Republic,” Hyman recalled.

What many people don’t realize, is that carnival is not that old on St. Maarten. “Carnival was relatively recent,” Beaujon pointed out. “When we became electrified things changed. Record players changed the musical influence,” in the 60s and 70s, he noted, exposing the island to a wider variety of musical forms, like reggae and calypso.

“We used to listen to the old people play. They used to play the tambourine drums,” Hyman reflected. “Eventually I learned to play the guitar, the banjo, the tres.” He’s been playing for the last “50 odd years,” he said.

At a time when there were no nightclubs, casinos, or lounges, folks on the island would sometimes go to what was called “bullfights,” usually someone’s house where they paid a small fee or brought liquor, and where musicians like Hyman, Velasquez, and Beaujon would be playing with guitars, bongo drums, and marimbolas. It was called a “bullfight” because “it always ended up with a fight,” Beaujon laughed.

Velasquez paid homage to some of the earlier musicians on the island, men like “Lala” Brown from Cole Bay. “Lalacito was an asset to the tourists,” he said. “He would take them to his home and play for them. Clem and Vincent Labega were good guitar players,” Velasquez continued.

The men then brought their guitars out and tuned them as the discussion went on. The afternoon was remarkably cool under the shade of Velasquez’s old trees, especially for the time of year. Out of the northeast came a breeze from the not too distant Atlantic.

The discussion naturally turned to their guitars. “Every guitar has a different sound,” Beaujon said. “Not one sounds alike,” Velasquez chimed in. Hyman plays with a favorite old wooden guitar. “He only likes the guitar because a woman gave it to him,” Velasquez teased. Hyman smiled quietly.

Velasquez plays with a tres, a Spanish Caribbean guitar played in Cuba and Puerto Rico. His own is metallic with beautiful ornamentation. Velasquez, a meticulous musician, also makes his own picks. “The pick affects the sound,” he said.

He then explained that guitars were at one point made on the island. “They used to make guitars here” with red cedar found deep in the hills. Or with mahogany, with the trees still existing near the border in Cole Bay.

The mood became a little more melancholic when asked who would continue this rich local acoustic tradition. Hyman expressed that “there are a couple of guys” that can play, but he “would like to start a class to teach youngsters. It’s important for people to retain their culture,” he declared. “The younger generation has lost that link with its past.”

The men began to play. The players became lost in their melodies; their guitars became a part of them, and the sound of three guitars wafted through the air. Out came laughter and old stories after they played a song called “Catalina.” It is a mystery to the non-musician how they can remember the melodies and notes, even after a long time.

Rare songs hardly ever heard any more on the island were played, songs in Spanish like “Yo no puede vivir sin tu amor,” an example of the Latin influence on the island and the close cultural ties between the Dominican Republic and St. Maarten, where many children of local parents were born. It is a rustic ode to the universal anguish of love.

Hyman serenaded with his deep voice. He sang one of his own compositions, “Blue Caribbean Skies.” They played without notes, feeding off each other’s rhythms and enthusiasm for their craft.

A small disagreement erupts over the musical tempo. “Every time they play, there is an argument,” Beaujon chuckled. “He ain Catholic, today he Methodist,” Velasquez teased Hyman.

But they continued to play, and as the music went on, no words were needed anymore.

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Comments (1)


  1. anthony davis says:

    like to contact Carlson Velazquez Anthony Dudley davis’s son Anthony davis